ENQUIRER INVESTIGATION: Baby Brittany not only area child who perished despite open case
Sheila McLaughlin reports:
Brittany Humphries died in her crib Jan. 14, six days shy of her first birthday.
At first, investigators believed the brown-eyed, dark-haired toddler had choked on a hotdog. But an autopsy revealed Brittany’s skull was fractured, the result of blunt force trauma days before her death.Butler County Children Services was supposed to be watching over the child.
A three-month Enquirer investigation revealed that caseworkers left Brittany and her siblings with their mother’s unemployed live-in boyfriend – a 23-year-old man with a history of contacts with police that included allegations of theft, criminal damaging and heroin use. He’s now a suspect in the baby’s death, police said.
The Enquirer further learned that Brittany’s 2-year-old sister also was found to have a healing skull fracture, according to juvenile court records.
Brittany’s death under the watch of an Ohio children services agency was not an isolated event. In 2010, the latest year for which state information is available, eight children died from child abuse or neglect while children services agencies had open cases on them.
“That’s a tragedy. I know our system has really worked very hard to develop the best tools possible (to determine) safety risk,” said Crystal Ward Allen, executive of Public Children Services Association of Ohio and also a member of the state Child Fatality Review Board. “Even though our science has gotten better, nothing is predictive of human behavior totally.”
Details of Brittany’s case were pieced together with limited information from children services records, juvenile court transcripts, a report by the children services agency ombudsman, Middletown online police records, and interviews with police officials and Brittany’s grandmother, who said she asked to keep Brittany and her siblings while their mother was in jail.
Minimal information from children services is available because officials are barred by state confidentiality laws from talking about or providing records about specific allegations of abuse and neglect.
The Enquirer’s investigation revealed that children services had an open case on the family for four months when Brittany died. It also showed that caseworkers by law were supposed to make twice-monthly visits with Brittany and her siblings, including one in the home. It is unknown, because of confidentiality rules, whether those checks occurred.
A report written by the agency ombudsman also suggested that agency staff mishandled complaints by not assigning them to an intake worker.
No one has been arrested in the child’s death.
The discovery about Brittany’s case comes three months after mistakes by caseworkers left a 12-year-old Middletown girl locked in the filthy, bug-infested basement of her parents’ home for weeks. The girl’s parents face an upcoming trial on child endangering charges.
News of that July incident sparked an outcry by Butler County commissioners, who ordered an overhaul of the agency, suspended the caseworker and removed agency leader Jeff Centers.
The discovery also comes as Butler County voters are being asked Tuesday to pass a renewal levy that pays for half of the agency’s $30 million budget.
Grandmother asked to take kids in
Brittany’s grandmother, Gail Olson of Middletown, told The Enquirer she tried to intervene when her daughter, Courtney Olson, went to jail for a week in late December and early January for failing to appear for a child support hearing involving another child who lives in Kentucky. But, she said, the caseworker rejected her phone request to care for the children in the meantime.
She said she expressed concerns to the caseworker that she “didn’t know or trust the boyfriend” because he and Courtney Olson had only been together for two months.
Courtney Olson said her caseworker visited her in jail and asked where she wanted her children to be placed. Her answer: Gail Olson or the children’s great-grandmother.
Courtney Olson said that she signed a piece of paper for the caseworker to that effect, but that she didn’t have a copy of the document to corroborate it.
“They should have gave her to me and she would still be alive,” Gail Olson said in an interview.
“They told me, ‘We think it’s in the best interest of the children just to leave them where they are at since he doesn’t work and he’s right there,’” said the grandmother, who works full time. “Well, there’s day care out there, and I know children services pays for that.”
Brittany, her 2-year-old sister and 8-year-old brother were staying with Courtney’s boyfriend at her house. All the children have different fathers. The 2-year-old girl has since been placed in the temporary care of her paternal grandmother. The boy, who was not injured, is in a foster home. His biological father is dead.
Jerome Kearns, the director of Butler County Job and Family Services, whom commissioners appointed to lead children services as well, has been working in his dual role for about a month. He said he could not provide information about why the children were placed with the boyfriend or whether caseworkers visited Brittany and her siblings in Courtney Olson’s home while she was jailed. He also said confidentiality laws regarding cases of abuse and neglect forbid him from responding to Gail Olson’s allegations.
A children’s advocate who is not involved in the case said he was shocked that an agency would place children with the mother’s boyfriend.
Joshua Crabtree, managing attorney with Children’s Law Center in Covington, said child protective agencies generally give preference to the wishes of a parent and to placing children with relatives. He also noted that a mother’s boyfriend is the person most likely to kill or injure their partner’s child, according to national research.
“It seems to be absent any logic,” Crabtree said of the placement.
‘She threw up and choked on food’
Courtney Olson was out of jail and back home when Brittany died.
In a frantic 911 call to Middletown’s dispatch center, she said her daughter was dead and there was vomit in her crib when she found her around 11:15 a.m. Jan. 14. Courtney Olson’s boyfriend was there that day, along with his 4-year-old son and Courtney Olson’s 8-year-old son.
“She threw up and choked on food,” Courtney Olson told the dispatcher.
She said that Brittany had gone to bed at 4 p.m. the day before and that she hadn’t checked on her since 6 or 7 p.m. Brittany had been “crying a lot and sleeping a lot,” and Olson said she thought the baby was teething.
An autopsy revealed a healing skull fracture that was caused by blunt force trauma to the baby’s head. It’s unclear when the injury occurred. Police say coroner’s officials told them it might have happened three or four days before death. A coroner’s investigator refused to answer questions about the case.
Children services caseworkers ordered a physical examination of Brittany’s 2-year-old sister in January following the results of Brittany’s autopsy.
According to Butler County Juvenile Court transcripts, a caseworker said that the sister’s injury – a large, complex skull fracture involving multiple bones – “could not be time-stamped” but was the result of “older injuries.”
The 2-year-old girl was in the care of their mother’s live-in boyfriend for several days before her biological father was granted temporary custody.
Courtney Olson’s now-ex-boyfriend remains one of two suspects in Brittany’s death, said Middletown Police Lt. Scott Reeve.
Agency had ‘mountain of paperwork’ on Olson
Records reviewed by The Enquirer show that Butler County Children Services caseworkers were involved with Courtney Olson since 2009. Those contacts had amassed a “mountain of paperwork,” according to the agency’s independent ombudsman, Bill Morrison, who answers directly to county commissioners.
Morrison’s job is to review how the agency handles child protection cases “for trending problems” and recommends what can be done to resolve them. Commissioner Cindy Carpenter asked him to review Brittany’s case, he said.
Morrison said he reviewed the 300-page file and and hundreds of additional pages of documentation.
The massive volume of paper made it impossible for new caseworkers to have information about lingering concerns that might have existed about the family, Morrison told The Enquirer. Summaries of each case would have made that easier, he said.
Morrison’s recommendation that all historical information about the agency’s involvement with a family be transferred to each new caseworker was not followed, he said.
His report on Brittany’s case also suggests that agency staff mishandled additional child abuse or neglect reports involving the family before Brittany’s death.
It is not clear why children services first became involved with Courtney Olson and her children in 2009. However, Courtney Olson said a case in 2010 involved a complaint that she was “doing drugs.”
“I had dirty urine and I had to go to rehab,” she told The Enquirer.
That case was eventually closed, she said.
Three investigations after Brittany’s birth
Kearns said that Brittany’s case was reviewed after her death and a report was sent to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
A summary report The Enquirer received from children services under a public records request indicates the agency looked into three complaints following Brittany’s birth in January 2011.
The first, on March 23, 2011, was a report that Courtney Olson was smoking crack and abusing her prescription medication. The agency determined the allegation was unsubstantiated.
The agency became involved two more times, in March and September 2011, after Courtney Olson was involved in domestic violence incidents.
In the September case, which also included allegations that the residence was dirty and Brittany had a diaper rash, children services staff devised an “alternative response plan” that kept the children in the home while caseworkers kept tabs on the family and offered services to help avoid removing the children from the home.
That case was open when Brittany died.
“My daughter wound up murdered,” Courtney Olson said.
Police don’t count on solving the case anytime soon.
“We’ve gotten everything we can get,” Reeve said. “Unless somebody has a conscience later on and confesses, we’re not going to be able to get anything else.”